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 Philip Cannon Obituary

"Rick Wakeman’s favourite teacher"

The composer and teacher Philip Cannon, who has died aged 87, defied avant-garde trends with vocal and instrumental music that communicated immediately with listeners.

His first acknowledged works date from his student years at the Royal College of Music. He was only 19 when he wrote his symphonic study Spring, which was played at the Proms under Sir Malcolm Sargent in 1954. Another notable piece from this period, the lively neo-classical Concertino for piano and strings (1951), was premiered by Joseph Cooper and has been performed internationally more than 1,000 times.

Drawn to the voice, in his Cinq Chansons de Femme (1952) Cannon set five old French ballads for soprano and harp or piano, recreating in contemporary vignettes the archaic, serious or light-hearted spirit of the texts. A turning point came when his passionately dissonant String Quartet of 1964 won two international awards in France. It was written at a time when the composer was becoming increasingly disillusioned with contemporary trends in composition. The score bears the superscription “a personal exorcism of the many devils that beset us today”.

A series of high-profile commissions ensued, including two for the Three Choirs Festival. The Temple (1974), for unaccompanied choir, is an intensely beautiful treatment of George Herbert’s mystic poetry. Lord of Light (1980) is a large-scale one-movement setting of the requiem mass for soloists, boys’ choir, chorus, organ and large orchestra. An unexpected cri de coeur in the prayer for rest, Dona Eis Requiem, is a highlight of this visionary piece which ends in a fantasia on the joyful tune Christe Redemptor Omnium, one of the chimes at Gloucester Cathedral, where the piece was premiered. His most prestigious commission, the Te Deum (1975), dedicated to the Queen, marked the 500th anniversary of St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

In 1945 he wrote a string quartet which so impressed Imogen Holst that she invited him to study with her at Dartington Hall in Devon. She instilled in her pupil what he later described as “a tough and steely self-awareness of my powers and limitations which proved a constant revelation”. At the age of 18 he gained a composition scholarship to the Royal College of Music (1948-51), studying there with Gordon Jacob, Ralph Vaughan Williams and, for a few lessons, Paul Hindemith. After lecturing in music at Sydney University (1957-59), he was appointed a professor of composition at the RCM (1960-95). Cannon was made a fellow of the RCM (1972) and a bard of the Cornish cultural body Gorsedh Kernow (1997).

The composer, keyboard player and songwriter Rick Wakeman wrote in the college’s magazine Upbeat: “My absolute favourite teacher was Philip Cannon. He was an incredibly eccentric teacher, and you never knew what he was going to say next, but he taught me everything I know about orchestration.”

In 2010 he donated his archive of music manuscripts to the Bodleian Library, Oxford. One of his last completed works was an a cappella setting of Herbert’s poem Faith, written in 2012 for St Martin’s Chamber Choir of Denver, Colorado. A Lyrita CD featuring off-air recordings of BBC broadcasts of Cinq Chansons de Femme, the String Quartet and Lord of Light is scheduled for release in April. Paul Conway, The Guardian

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From the Catalogue

Written on Skin at Covent Garden, London

If you missed it last time, hurry while stocks of lightly grilled artist’s heart last! If you saw it, go again anyway. I’m still riveted after seeing it three times. One’s admiration at how the two central characters, the brutal Protector and his seemingly submissive wife Agnès, have been developed by Christopher Purves and Barbara Hannigan, who created the roles in 2012. Richard Morrison, The Times

Written on Skin is one of the operatic masterpieces of our time. This is the third time I have heard a live performance of Written on Skin and I remain convinced that it will come to rank as one of the operatic masterpieces of our time – a hauntingly resonant and subtle drama, conveyed through music of profound expressive force and authentic originality that makes so much else that passes for genius in contemporary theatre seem tritely modish. The result of an unusually close collaboration between composer George Benjamin and the librettist Martin Crimp, it received its première in 2013 and has since enjoyed enormous success throughout Europe and in the USA. Benjamin’s music is both eerily precise, every batsqueak seeming to register through its translucent instrumentation, and weirdly elusive in its quietness and restraint. There is no mush, no babble, and the few climaxes are all the more shocking for being so spare. Like Debussy, whose Pelléas et Mélisande is evoked here at several levels, Benjamin can make the tiniest gesture or shading register with needle-sharpness, he doesn’t need to boom. The composer himself conducts here with unassertive authority, drawing playing of crystal clarity from an orchestra swelled with the unconventional sounds of glass harmonica, sleigh-bells, viol and steel drum. There is magic in the air.  Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph

A contemporary operatic masterpiece George Benjamin’s first full-length opera Written on Skin was widely acclaimed when it received its initial performances in Aix en Provence, London and elsewhere in 2012/13. Now revived at Covent Garden, again under the composer’s accomplished baton, its status as a contemporary operatic masterpiece is assured. Deploying an imaginatively wide-ranging palette (including bass viol, glass harmonica, sleigh-bells and bowed cow-bells), Benjamin can suggest the Protector’s burgeoning jealousy with low, minatory brass or tremolo strings; the score is replete too with preternaturally beautiful sonorities. The sung lines of Agnès and the Boy are integral to this exquisite fabric. Barry Millington, Evening Standard

'A modern masterpiece' George Benjamin’s second opera, Written on Skin was premiered at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012 and made a strong impression when it came to Covent Garden the following year; in its first revival at the Royal Opera House, it impresses even more. Baritone Christopher Purves discovers complex nuances in the part of the brutal local overlord who commissions him, while Barbara Hannigan’s high-flying soprano helps bring the latter’s wife Agnes some of the empowerment she so desperately craves. The composer himself returns to conduct this musically taut account of a subtle and fascinating score only lightly sprinkled with archaic sounds but whose overall delicacy and restraint alternating with sheer dramatic punch surely mark it out as a modern masterpiece. George Hall, The Stage

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